Tom Seegmueller, longtime Chehaw Park volunteer, said many of the original log cabins from Chehaw’s 1937 beginning still survive and are used throughout the park. The name for the popular south Georgia attraction is taken from a tribe of friendly Indians who once lived in the area.
ALBANY, Ga. -- It was a heck of a deal for just 10 dollars, even at the height of the Great Depression -- a plot of some 600 acres sold by the city of Albany to the state of Georgia to officially become "State Park Number Nine."
The crux of the idea was to provide gainful employment for young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps, part of Roosevelt's New Deal.
Three-quarters of a century have passed since May 12, 1937, and the park now known as Chehaw has since been deeded back to the city, later to become an entity under its own authority.
Tom Seegmueller, a Chehaw volunteer for all his adult life, has researched the early days of the park. The land, known as "the Ball Place," named for the family that once owned it, was nothing more than a sand barren -- a place to borrow sand for use in other areas.
"The Civilian Conservation Corps had a camp nearby," Seegmueller said, "and every morning they would march from their camp to the land. At the end of the day, they marched back. Using square-point shovels and picks, they landscaped the whole area. They all wore thick wool uniforms. Can you imagine that in summer?"
Even today, a number of original log-cabin structures can be seen at Chehaw, some of them patched with modern pressure-treated lumber. Interested visitors might even find a worn metal medallion embedded near a doorway, identifying the structure as a WPA project.
The cabin of Chehaw's first manager once stood at the current site of the Creekside Education Center. The rustic log structure, with it's heavy iron hinges and hand-cut lumber, was moved inside the animal park and is now the office of zoo director Kevin Hils and his staff.
In July 1975, as part of a statewide trend, the Georgia Department of Resources decommissioned Chehaw and deeded the land back to Albany. The park remained a part of the city until formation of the Chehaw Park Authority in 2002, when it became a self-governing entity. Even now, Chehaw receives a major portion of its funding from the city of Albany.
The park, named for the "Chehaw," a tribe of friendly Creek Indians which inhabited three settlements in the area, has come to be almost synonymous with the animal park within it. However, Chehaw existed some 40 years without a single captive animal. There was a zoo of sorts at Albany's Tift Park, where visitors could view a fair variety of exotic animals, including "Lasca" the elephant, so-called because she was purchased by "Ladies and School Children of the Area."
By 1969, almost 200 animals were crowded into an area just over 7 acres.
"It was a poke 'em and punch 'em zoo," Seegmueller said. "The cages were very small, and you could literally just come up and poke a bear or whatever."
In the early 1970s, Mrs. Whitfield Gunnels and Mrs. Proctor Johnston Sr. reportedly encouraged officials to move the animals to a more natural habitat. Trips to other parks were made, and a study was conducted. Ultimately, Chehaw State Park was elected as the most suitable location.
Area schools, civic clubs and private individuals generated activities designed to raise money to build new habitats. Ground was broken for the habitats in 1977, and a layout was provided by Jim Fowler, a well-known naturalist and Albany native. Labor was donated by Dougherty County and the city of Albany, and most of the animals at the old Tift Park zoo were transferred to the new Chehaw Wild Animal Park on Oct. 9, 1977.
"Jim Fowler's master plan was for (the zoo) to be a drive-through animal exhibit in a very large area," Seegmueller said.
According to Seegmueller, Fowler would also provide a number of the exotic animals of the kind he raised for Circus World and other entities at his home on Mud Creek Plantation.
Unfortunately, because of inadequate funding and other obstacles, Fowler's drive-through concept would have to wait some 35 years, until completion of the upcoming African Veldt attraction. Soon, visitors will tour an "Africanized" environment in tractor-drawn vehicles to view ostriches, zebra and eland, or giant African antelope, in open, natural habitat.
The Chehaw zoo is one of only three facilities in the state of Georgia accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums -- the gold standard, according to Ben Kirkland, natural resources manager at the park. Both the others are in Atlanta. Kirkland said AZA approval requires the strictest adherence to all areas of animal habitat, treatment and nutrition.
"I absolutely believe Chehaw to be an asset for the city," Kirkland said. "It's a great place for people to have a reason to come to Albany."
Doug Porter, executive director of Chehaw, agreed, calling the park a real gem.
"My only concern is that a lot people in Albany may not know just what they have," Porter said.
It would certainly be easy to distinguish today's Chehaw from the state park of 1937, not only for the zoo but the frequent Frontier and Indian festivals, its state-of-the-art childrens' play park, education center, campgrounds and its nationally sanctioned BMX track.
Naturally, funding for the park has been an ongoing concern. In 1989, Dougherty County citizens approved a portion of a 1 percent SPLOST, or local sales tax, that has done much to keep the park alive and well. Ironically, the floods of 1994 and 1998, which caused significant damage to the park, also provided substantial federal funding for new improvements, Porter said.
Currently, Chehaw operates on a budget of about $1.6 million annually, Kirkland said, with a city contribution of slightly more than $1 million. The balance comes from donations, entrance fees and other sources, including the recent sale of planted pines. According to Porter, officials are looking into other revenue sources within the park itself.
"You think of how many communities this size have an accredited art museum, an accredited symphony and an AZA-accredited wild animal collection all at one time. That's really not too shabby," Seegmueller said.